Photographers' Blog

Chile’s tsunami: a victim and his ghost

“I made the wrong decision,” was the first thing Emilio Gutierrez told me the first time we met. That was the day I took a photograph of him carrying his dog, just two days after the tsunami. I didn’t get to know him well enough then to even learn his name.

A combination photo shows Emilio Gutierrez, who lost his father and son during a tsunami brought by the February 2010 earthquake, (top) carrying his son's dog after rescuing it from the ruins of his home in Constitucion, March 10, 2010, and (bottom) holding his 2-month-old baby, Emilia, at his home in Putu town, near Constitucion February 25, 2011. Gutierrez continues to search for 4-year-old Jose who disappeared in a huge wave spawned by the tsunami last year. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Minutes after the earthquake in his hometown of Constitucion on February 27, 2010, Emilio made the decision to escape the looming waves with his family by boat upriver, away from the river’s mouth. In the dark of night and the panic of the moment his father and son, Emilito Jose, were the first to climb into the boat. But before the rest of the family could follow them the mooring ropes snapped and they were dragged away by the current.

Emilio trusted his father’s experience and was sure that they would be fine. Together with his mother and wife, Sofia, he climbed into their other boat and headed upriver. “The noise was like helicopters hovering above us.” That was the noise of the advancing first wave as it destroyed everything in its path.

Emilio Gutierrez (R) and his wife Sofia Monsalves stand with their baby daughter Emilia in front of a drawing that Emilio did of the boat in which they escaped the tsunami caused by the 2010 earthquake, in their home in Constitucion February 25, 2011. Their son Emilito Jose went missing in the disaster and was never found. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

The boat overturned and they found themselves in the water, swimming through pieces of wood and giving it all they could to reach the bank. “Mom begged me to leave her in the river. She couldn’t swim anymore and just wanted to rest. I thought about leaving her to help Sofia, but I thought, she is young and Mom is old. I began thinking, if I had to choose between saving Sofia or Emilito Jose I would save him.” As we talked, a year after the disaster, next to us Sofia lowered her head in silence.

Sofia Monsalves shows a dress-up costume belonging to her son, Emilito Jose, who went missing after a tsunami caused by the February 2010 quake, in Constitucion February 25, 2011.REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Emilio managed to help both his mother and his wife out of the river, and began searching for his father and son, trusting in their safety. He roamed about with only a vague idea of the level of destruction around them. Emilio’s life was changed forever.

Chile: The earthquake picture I never sent

Caption for an unchosen picture:

Constitución, March 1 – An earthquake survivor carries the dog that he rescued from the ruins of his home, along a street devastated by the earthquake and tsunami.

“Take my picture with the dog,” the survivor tells me. I take it as if ordered to, and see that his face shows tremendous pain. “I lost my home, the sea took my son and my wife, and this is all that was left. I can’t leave the dog here. He was my son’s.” He pauses. “I found my wife (alive), but my boy is still missing.” Before he finishes speaking I lower my camera and cry. I walk together with him thinking what to say to lessen his suffering, but there is only silence.

ivan blog photo

I never sent this poorly-focused photo of the earthquake survivor. The preconception of what makes a good photograph, the aesthetics, the layers of composition, and the sharpness or lack of it, all became reasons not to choose it. It was some time later when I realized that the sadness of the out-of-focus man with his pet is still transmitted as pain and devastation even through the picture’s technical defects, and banishes all the photographic concepts I hold true in my own little world. I blame Reason for overcoming Emotion.

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